A friend in deep emotional pain asked where is God when it hurts? It’s a familiar question with no easy answer. That doesn’t keep easy answers from being offered. Another friend posted a bromide on Facebook: “God has a purpose for your pain, a reason for your struggles and a reward for your faithfulness. Don’t give up.” She was offended when I said it was sloppy theology, countering that encouragement was a good thing. Last week a 17 year old girl was killed in a head on collision on a local highway caused by the other car. I don’t believe telling her parents that God has a purpose for their pain would be encouraging.
Maybe answers can come only from personal experience. Pain and misfortune come to all of us. Each incident has a cause, but not always a reason. Sometimes we know what the cause is. Sometimes we don’t. And sometimes it’s just chance. I have two guesses about God’s role in all of that. One is that the more we can open ourselves to God’s presence in our lives, the more God’s presence will be felt as something leading us through the vicissitudes of life into new possibilities. That’s not the same thing as asserting that God had a purpose, a reason, for either causing or letting it happen. Moses, it seems to me, might be an example. It took him a lifetime of maturing from prince to patriarch as he learned to allow himself to be guided by God through difficulties that were bound to happen whether or not God caused them.
The other is that God may call someone to become his agent, knowing full well that he or she will have to go through great trials and suffering, some of which might be due to God’s direct action. Moses, it seems to me, might be an example. He was called, reluctantly agreed to it only after vigorous argument against it, and finally went stubbornly through with it, but without a lot of enthusiasm. The story of Moses has a certain legendary, almost mythical quality, and that’s one reason why it has so much value as a teaching tool. For a story more akin to the daily life of ordinary people, we might turn to Paul. My recent essay on Paul the Failure (May 30, 2016) observed that Paul had few successes and many failures to think about as he came to the end of his life. I doubt that God had a purpose or reason for his beatings, jailings, ship wrecks, and problems with recalcitrant congregations, nor do I think God had a purpose or reason for his final imprisonment and beheading. Nevertheless, I am convinced that Paul saw in each of them an opportunity to add something to the work God had given him to do.
So what am I to say to my friend in deep emotional pain? He is in pain. Is he angry that God, who is supposed to fix these things, hasn’t done it? Like Job, does he want a moral answer to a moral question? Is he blaming God for the trouble he’s caused for himself through his own actions? Is he blaming God for the trouble others have caused him through their own actions? Is he uncomfortable with a universe in which chance plays a part in God’s greater plan about which we are not privy? As Christians, where does Jesus fit into this? The way I read it, Jesus laid down a path for us paved with love, reconciliation, and restoration to wholeness as the way to life in abundance, but it is not a way that will avoid trouble, tragedy and pain. It is a path that enables those who walk it to share, however weakly, with others who need it a bit of the light of Christ and the hope of the kingdom of God. It is not a dead end path. It may lead into the valley of death, but it does not stop there, it passes through it into a greater life that begins now and becomes more and more real as we take each hesitant step onward. Can we trust Jesus to have got that right? If he is, as we believe, the very Word of God made flesh, then there is no one else to trust.
I don’t think you can be told that. I think you have to experience it. Maybe the best I can do is offer him the opportunity to try it for himself. As for me, I’ll take the words of St. Patrick’s breastplate as the answer to where is God when it hurts.